Kenneth MacDonald’s kitchen makeover
at Quail Lodge proves that fresh, local and
organic are good for profits as well as for people
Photography by Rob Fisher and Margaux Gibbons
“Fine dining is dead!” Ken MacDonald boldly told a panel of tasters brought in to decide whether to hire him as executive chef at Quail Lodge in Carmel Valley. While that might seem like a foolish thing to say, MacDonald had a secret weapon he hoped would win him the post.
Driving all over Northern California on the way to his tryout, MacDonald stopped at farm after farm, picking up the tastiest, freshest seasonal ingredients he could find, like organic grass-fed lamb near Davis and butternut squash from his friend Nick Prevedelli, of Prevedelli Farms in Watsonville.
“People want simple, clean, wholesome farm-to-table food,” he explained to the panel, weaving a little story with his thick Scottish brogue about the origin of each of his prized ingredients.
MacDonald got the job, and over the last 18 months, he has transformed the resort’s food service—particularly the once-staid clubhouse restaurant, Edgar’s. Out went the golf ball table decorations and off came the golfing posters that lined the walls.
In the kitchen, frozen foods were banned and MacDonald started ordering everything from organic farmers, fishermen and grass-fed meat purveyors within as tight a radius of Quail as he could manage.
“It was hard at the beginning going from frozen to fresh, and we lost a few regulars along the way,” he admits, “but we’ve turned the corner now and gained many more.” A case in point is Earthbound Farm co-founder and cookbook author Myra Goodman.
“We eat there often now that Ken is there and has such a huge commitment to organic food, sustainable seafood and humanely raised animal products,” Goodman says, noting that his commitment to making sure that even the sugar and condiments are organic is rare in this area. “His food is fresh and delicious, and there’s great variety to choose from.”
MacDonald says he gets greens from Soquel’s Happy Boy Farms, zucchini from Aromas’ Borba Farms, strawberries from Carmel’s Serendipity Farms, herbs from Salinas’ Everlasting Garden, 20 different varieties of heirloom tomatoes from Watsonville’s Mariquita Farm and lots of different kinds of produce from Hollister’s Swank Farms, to name several of his dozens of local suppliers.
For what he can’t pick up himself or get delivered by the farms, he turns to Savor the Local, a farm-to-restaurant specialty delivery service owned by Carmel resident, Colleen Logan. “It would be easier to use just one [farm], but you’ve got to share the love,” MacDonald says.
True to his farm-to-table philosophy, MacDonald’s vegetable laden cuisine is straightforward, with simple preparations that allow the ingredients to shine. But scattered throughout the menu are telltale signs—usually exotic spices and intense flavors—that hint at a cooking career that has taken him around the globe.
As a budding chef, he started out making jams with his grandmother in Glasgow. At technical college, he began studying hotel management, but soon learned he preferred the kitchen and took an apprenticeship at Scotland’s iconic Turnberry Resort—the site of Britain’s first manmade golf course. From there, he went south to sous chef for 12 years at the Hotel Ritz in London and, after a couple of chef exchanges to Kenya, he fell in love with Africa.
What followed was an odyssey of chef jobs in Cape Town, South Africa; Sydney, Australia and finally, San Francisco, where he worked at the Pan Pacific Hotel.
MacDonald’s conviction in the farm-to-table premise that fresh, seasonal and local ingredients always taste best was awakened by the fresh, fragrant fruit he was able to cook with in Africa—in contrast to the hard, tasteless peaches that had been shipped to his kitchen in London.
But the experience that most fueled his passion for this kind of cooking was the post he held immediately before coming to Carmel Valley—executive chef at the historic, eco-friendly Sleeping Lady resort east of Seattle. During his time at Sleeping Lady, MacDonald helped transform a wedding garden into a fully functional chef’s garden, growing all of the vegetables, herbs, berry bushes and fruit trees the climate could bear.
While many hotel chefs fear that going local and organic is too expensive, for MacDonald, bringing Quail on board has proven to be just the opposite. He says he has been able to reduce food costs from 60% to 24% of his budget by being price savvy and buying directly from the farms with no middleman.
“We buy every day, and everything that comes in gets used, so there’s no wastage,” he says, describing his methods. “We try to keep a tight grip on stuff—look in the fridges every day, keep it fresh and don’t over-order.”
Perhaps taking up where he left off at Sleeping Lady, the chef is teaming up this winter with Serendipity Farms owner Jamie Collins to realize his dream come true. They’re building a combination show garden and organic produce garden on about 10 acres of Quail Lodge property alongside the golf course, right next to the aptly named Valley Greens Drive.
“It’s a beautiful space and prime ag land that used to be farmed for Earthbound many years ago,” says Collins, adding that she is looking forward to growing a little of everything there, from herbs, fruits and vegetables for the kitchen to flowers for the rooms. “To have farm-to- table right there on the property, it just can’t get any better than that.”
But MacDonald has one more project in mind. Peninsula Hotels, which manages Quail Lodge, runs an academy for chefs in the group, and he hopes to launch a training program on organic, farm-to-table cooking right there in his chef’s garden in Carmel Valley. Says the thrifty, globe-trotting, locavore chef: “I want to be an inspiration for them to come and see what we do and how we do it.”
Edgar’s at Quail Lodge
8205 Valley Greens Drive, Carmel
Deborah Luhrman is a lifelong journalist who has reported from around the world. She returned home to the Santa Cruz Mountains a few years back and enjoys covering our growing local foods movement. She also edits EMB’s electronic newsletter.